Why Game Thinking is a Bigger Idea Than Game Mechanics

While the idea of using game mechanics in non-game contexts is getting a lot of attention, I think that game thinking is a bigger idea than game mechanics.

Game mechanics involves using badges, levels, points, leaderboards and challenges to design game-like applications that persuade users to perform desired actions.

Game thinking involves using a mindset of pleasure and playfulness to design game-like environments that enable users to solve real-world business and social problems even as they play and have fun.

So, as per my work-in-progress definition, game mechanics is persuasion-oriented while game thinking is pleasure-oriented.

It seems that a lot of people share my concerns related to the excessive emphasis on game mechanics. My post on why you should not integrate game mechanics into your service was picked up by both Hacker News and Read Write Web and attracted several insightful comments.

Kathy Sierra argues that “adding these so-called “rewards” are not without a cost; we sacrifice long-term motivation and value for the user… and cheapen their experience in the long run.”

Stephen Knightly (@sknightly) points out that professional game developers associate the term “game mechanics” not with “points, leaderboards and badges” but with “abilities, powerup progression, deep emergent systems, story, challenge.”

Ryan Elkins from game mechanics service iActionable (@iactionable) agrees that points, levels, leaderboards, and badges are really “meta game mechanics.”

Game mechanics service Bunchball (@bunchball) agrees that “if users have no reason to come back to your site without game mechanics, they’re going to have no reason to come back with game mechanics.”

I am trying to come up with a taxonomy of game design concepts that elevates the discussion from features like points, levels, leaderboards, and badges to dynamics like status, social capital, surprise and sharing.

Do share your insights on the game mechanics versus game thinking debate in the comments.

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